With the new semester starting and the most recent Farm Bill passing in December and legalizing industrial hemp, some exciting prospects for agriculture and the students who study it are on the rise. Elizabeth Thilmany, a University of Maryland student, was already ahead of the curve, recently named a fellow of the Snider Undergraduate Research Experience Program, also known as SURE, through the Smith School of Business with a focus on innovative enterprises and a proposed research project examining perspectives and viability of growing industrial hemp in Maryland.
This idea was already planted in Thilmany’s mind before the Farm Bill passed, but the bill opens the door for more extensive and detailed work to be done.
“I see my research as being kind of a timely piece that shows the framework of what industrial hemp could mean, and I like the idea of recording different perspectives because it impacts farmers, consumers and researchers and how they get this industry out of the 50 plus years of recess we are in,” said Thilmany.
Thilmany, a Colorado native, has been using Colorado as a model to do preliminary research for this topic, since they have had legalized hemp research since 2014. Classifications of hemp have been confusing in these areas with state and federal legality clashing.
“There has been a lot of confusion around where hemp fits in to try and catch up on what’s going on,” said Thilmany.
But if the systems can catch up, the potential for industrial hemp as a crop is very widespread and lucrative. Hemp is heralded for nutritional benefits in the seeds, other health benefits in cosmetics and bath products, and even as a producer of paper and fabrics as an alternative and potentially more environmentally friendly crop than cotton.
“There’s not any supply chain built into the system currently, so it’ll be very interesting to see the timeframe and process to get the plant, grow and harvest it, and then establish a system for processing,” said Thilmany. “Fabric, paper, nutritional products all have different processing and supply chains. It will be important to look to international industries as well like Canada who already has a legal hemp system in place.”
Paul Goeringer, legal and senior faculty specialist in Agricultural and Resource Economics, is Thilmany’s faculty advisor on the project, and he agrees that this is work that needs to be done.
“We are both excited about this project. The work is timely and interesting, and there isn’t a lot out there in terms of industrial hemp research. Legally and agriculturally, there is a lot to untangle, but a lot to be gained.” Thilmany said. “We are a country founded on farmers, so taking care of farmers and making sure they still have ways to make money and keep their livelihoods is very important.”
Personally, Thilmany grew up around agricultural economists, with her mother working for Colorado State as an economist under Dean Craig Beyrouty, now Thilmany’s current dean in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at University of Maryland. But, her drive ultimately came from reading the book Freakonomics in middle school.
“I loved the thought process of using scientific method and math, but looking at more social problems and policy concerns,” said Thilmany. She said she was particularly attracted to resource economics as a “really innovative way of finding environmental benefits through economically smart decisions.”
She is excited to be a part of the SURE Program with the business school, now a double major in agricultural and resource economics and supply chain management, minoring in statistics. She was one of just a few sophomores accepted to the program, and would have actually taken part as a freshman had she not faced an unexpected struggle with cancer. But she is proudly in remission now and back to her usual activities, serving as a resident assistant, playing bass in the UMD Repertoire Orchestra, organizing events with the Food Recovery Network recovering discarded food at campus dining halls for the hungry, and even serving on the dean’s advisory council.
“I really feel like the ag college is my home,” said Thilmany.
Right now, she is moved by her past experiences and the future prospects of the agricultural industry and environmental stewardship to study hemp production. She will be presenting her findings as part of the SURE Program at the end of the semester in May, and she is excited to see what the future holds.